ArcGIS vs. QGIS - a teacher's subjective view

"I use ArcGIS, because it works for me, and I have never experienced any trouble with it. Why should I use any other GIS software"

"But how can you afford it? It's more expensive than Adobe's Creative Suite! Why don't you use QGIS? It's free and offers the same functionalities. With ArcGIS, you pay a lot for stuff you rarely ever use, because they are very specific."

"Well, can you perform [insert specific spatial analysis method] using QGIS? I know for a fact that you can't do that. I trust the people behind ArcGIS, they know what they are doing - and they are paid for what they do."

"Have you tried the large plug in repository QGIS is offering? Maybe you find your [specific spatial analysis method] there."

"But ArcGIS is better!"

"I think QGIS is better, because it's free!"



And so on and so on.

If you use to or used to work with geographic information systems and talk to other people doing the same thing, I'm almost certain you know this conversation. The everlasting battle between QGIS versus ArcGIS. Open source software versus proprietary software. Good versus evil.


I have been there. I know the struggle. And I heard countless arguments for and against this one and that one. As a simple user, knowing both systems, I think it heavily depends on

  • use - what you want to do, be it basic data analysis, advanced spatial techniques or presentation/visualization
  • price - whether you are willing or capable of paying a lot of money for a big software package
  • motivation - are you willing to learn something new, leave your comfort zone, or even being confronted with one or another bug.

From a teacher's perspective


I'm a teacher at university. I host introductory seminars for GIS and remote sensing. My 'target group' are mainly students of teaching, future geography teachers. Content of my seminars are the basics in working with spatial data: acquisition, management, processing, analysis, presentation.

Geographic information systems are a mess when it comes to user experience.

For me, it makes no difference whether I use ArcGIS or QGIS. I've seen both worlds - I view software as an instrument for conveying ideas and methods, not as a tool that you have to learn by heart, know where every function is buried under the GUI. Let's be honest - geographic information systems are a mess when it comes to user experience.
If it was for me, I could go on and only use shell or pythons scripts for spatial analysis, but that's only my opinion. If I would have a student sit down in front of the computer, and all he or she saw was a black screen and a blinking white cursor, waiting for input (using the keyboard!), they would flee the room screaming. Not all of them, but 99 out of 100 would.

From a student's perspective

Computer kid

Let's talk about the students' point of view. From what I have heard, most of the students don't like GIS, some of them are even afraid of the seminar. They think it's some kind of rocket science. When ask them what they are expecting from the seminar, I get answers like this:

"I heard GIS is very difficult."

"I hope it's not that hard."

"It is something I have to sit through."

"I don't expect anything, to be honest"

"Why do I even need this, I won't use it in school anyway."

In Germany, GIS is something that isn't taught in schools. Even advanced classes for geography still rely on paper maps, text books and memorizing topography. When I was in school (that was 10 years ago when I'm writing this) I had no clue there was something like a computer program to manipulate spatial data. I didn't even know spatial data existed. A teacher showed us something completely new, that we could use to see any place on this planet - Google Earth. But not in computer science classes, not geography classes.
I don't know whether the situation has changed. I think it has, seeing that students know what's coming. But here's the deal: students are missing media competence. With smartphones and tablets on the rise, nobody knows how to use a computer anymore. For some students, the simplest tasks are big obstacles, like downloading and extracting a zip file, navigating the Windows Explorer/Mac Finder/equivalent. Sometimes I spend up to four lessons, describing over and over again how to take a screenshot or how to create a PDF file from a word document. I thought about using LMGTFY.com, but that would be too obvious. I needed to get that straight.
Back to ArcGIS and QGIS. I've done seminars where students use one and the other and I've seen similar reactions with both of them.


As I've said, when students start up ArcGIS for the first time, they are overwhelmed by its sheer endless buttons and menus. What's even more confusing for them, is the fact that there are two programs to handle: ArcMap and ArcCatalog.
Another thing that is really annoying about ArcGIS is its inconsistent places to save and open data. Sometimes when you use a tool, the output is saved to the default geodatabase, sometimes to another folder. Considering some students' problems with navigating the file system (and that they are very impatient) nearly every data outcome gets saved to a different folder. This results in an outcry.

"I can't find my stuff!"

Background activity, which was implemented in ArcGIS 10, is kind of annoying, too, because you can't really do anything while a task is running in the background. I tell the students to turn it off in the first session. And, on the plus side, you get an indication for when a process is about to be finished.
Something that a few students might consider a downside is ArcGIS's restriction to Windows operating systems. I don't think it's a bad thing, because I encourage students to work at the computer lab.
What's actually good about ArcGIS, is it's integration with ArcGIS Online. This is something, that even the most conservative geography teachers are interested in: Putting together Google Maps-like interactive web maps with your own data in no time. And you can share them, too.


Let's take a look at QGIS. The most obvious advantage is its price and functionality across operating systems. Installation on Windows is as easy as clicking the .exe, Mac OS X is also convenient on newer versions. Linux can be kind of a hassle, but you are probably used to that, working with Linux distributions.
From my experience, there is a major downside to QGIS: it is very slow, even sluggish sometimes. Clipping, intersection and buffers on mildly large datasets take forever to finish. At one time, students were trying to perform a buffer on a street network. The process lasted for a couple of hours (!) and didn't finish. Trying to do the same task with ArcMap finished within a couple of minutes (!).

What people think I do - GIS edition

Final thoughts

So what's the final verdict on the matter? Well, it depends. If you're really keen on using open source software, and want pass on that attitude, I'd say strictly rely in QGIS. It runs on every computer and OS. It's also good if you give an introduction on geographic information systems.
On the other hand, if you have the possibility and the students have absolutely no background on spatial data processing, stick to ArcGIS. It is much faster when working with large data sets and every common analysis tool is already built in.
From the students I have heard both opinions. Some said, having worked with ArcGIS, working with QGIS was much more intuitive and they liked the GUI much more. Others said, they would have liked to do analysis with ArcGIS, because its processing was much faster.

  • fast processing
  • ArcGIS Online integration
  • free open source software
  • works across all major operating systems
  • inconsistent folder management
  • heavy on the price
  • works only on Windows
  • slow processing
  • installation of new packages for more analysis tools

Do you have any experience with working with QGIS and ArcGIS in comparison? Do you have a good story to tell? I'd really like to hear your opinion!